Consumer confidence

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - October 26, 2020 - 12:00am

The shopping malls are now back to their pre-pandemic cool environment, with free WiFi.

Now the challenge is restoring consumer confidence. The pandemic has rendered millions of Filipinos unemployed or underemployed, and there’s no certainty on when their finances might recover. Perhaps with the approach of Christmas, we will see a revival of consumption.

Filipinos typically don’t need a lot of impetus to shop. Many of us spend money as soon as it is in our hands. Remittances from overseas Filipinos workers powered our consumption-driven economic growth.

These days, however, reduced purchasing power is compounded by fears of COVID infection. People aren’t buying a lot of stuff, aren’t eating out or getting a manicure-pedicure, aren’t traveling.

The government should fast-track the assessment of saliva tests for widespread use. The version developed by Israel – said to be more accurate than the “gold standard” reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction or RT-PCR swab test, with instant results – reportedly has a production cost of just 12 US centavos per test (about P6). Even if you add the costs of the laboratory processing, manpower, storage, importation and delivery logistics, plus a reasonable profit margin all around, with a bulk order it shouldn’t cost consumers more than P300 per test.

It could revive travel especially by air; this is the case in Japan. Its own saliva test is now used at its airports; the results are out in about 30 minutes. (Check out the story here: The quick result means rapid isolation of the infected, so it could also curb coronavirus transmission.

Last week the US Food and Drug Administration approved remdesivir as treatment for COVID. But the drug has to be part of a treatment cocktail; there is still no single cure for coronavirus disease 2019.

In the absence of a vaccine or cure for COVID, people also continue to avoid doing certain activities. The avoidance has been devastating for certain businesses.

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Last Saturday I visited a strip mall for the first time in about a year. These visits can be a matter of seeing a glass half-full or half-empty: a popular bakeshop was preparing for full reopening (to include dine-in), but many other shops had closed for good. A few had signs telling people the establishments would reopen depending on the circumstances.

I was heartened to see many women having their mani-pedi at one of the most popular nail salon chains. The salon’s outlet at another mall had shut down for good. Two hair salons nearby also had customers. I’ve been cutting my own hair since the lockdowns, but I’m glad that there are women who are braving infection fears to have their hair trimmed.

The massage and body spas have been decimated. Everywhere I turn, the outlets of the biggest spa chains have closed, I think for good: the vacant shop spaces say they are now for lease. But I’ve seen two spas, not part of chains, boldly reopening in the past few days. Fortunately, I have a massage chair and a terrific foot massager. But I often wonder what has happened to my regular masseuse who was sent to me for home service by her spa employer. The masseuse went on leave shortly before the pandemic in preparation for giving birth in April. The spa remains closed.

The Saturday crowd is usually the largest in most malls. But with the small crowd at the strip mall that I visited, there was no need for reminders about physical distancing.

Young children and the elderly are barred so there are no families out malling these days. But there were people exploring the new shops at the strip mall, and the supermarket – as is usual in this pandemic – had the biggest crowd.

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I’ve wondered about why people in the United States and Europe seem so heedless about the risks of catching the coronavirus, despite the regular bombardment of news about infections, debilitation and death due to COVID-19. As soon as their governments lift restrictions, they flock to bars, restaurants, beaches and travel destinations, unmindful of distancing, and with some even resisting mask wearing.

My guess is that many people in the advanced economies live alone or at least with a partner, so they don’t worry too much about catching or transmitting the coronavirus. Some may even believe SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID, is similar to the measles virus and does not recur, and catching it might spell future immunity.

Health experts have warned that there is no evidence to support this theory. And the World Health Organization has warned against using this concept of immunity (and herd immunity) as a tack against COVID. Yet there are indications that the belief is there in certain societies.

In contrast, the typical Filipino household is quite large, with three or even four generations living under one roof: parents and two or three children (in low-income families, eight or nine kids is still common), grandparents, and maybe even other relatives. In such setups, several members are sure to have COVID comorbidities. Middle-class households typically have at least one househelper and possibly a driver; the number of household staff grows with the income.

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Putting the entire household at risk is one of the biggest reasons why people can’t afford to have a cavalier attitude toward COVID health protocols, at least in our country. Pet lovers even worry about infecting their dogs and cats.

This should be good news for health experts, but not too good for those who want to see the return of consumer and traveler confidence.

We saw what happened when outbound travel restrictions were lifted for Filipinos. Apart from all the pandemic-related pre-departure and arrival hassles, you can’t really enjoy traveling for leisure when you’re worried about catching a potentially deadly disease – and bringing it back home with you.

Children are safely studying at home under the blended learning mode, but this has also been bad for many economic activities. Tricycle and jeepney drivers have lost many of their regular customers. Manila’s University Belt looks like a ghost town; only the hole-in-the-wall printing shops are still thriving along C.M. Recto. Police have been watching the shops for churning out fake negative COVID swab test results. The documents are needed for employment and travel.

All over the COVID-battered planet, people badly want to resume earning a living. Once this happens, they will resume consumption, although limited purchasing power will keep them away from non-essentials.

Until a vaccine becomes widely available, a quick, affordable and accurate COVID test, plus some assurance of treatment in case of infection, can help restore consumer confidence.

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